Background: Colorectal cancers displaying high-degree microsatellite instability (MSI-H) have an improved prognosis compared to microsatellite stable (MSS) cancers. The observation of pronounced lymphocytic infiltrates suggests that MSI-H cancers are inherently more immunogenic. We aimed to compare the gene expression profiles of MSI-H and MSS cancers to provide evidence for an activated immune response in the former.
Results: We analysed tissue from 133 colorectal cancer patients with full consent and Local Ethics Committee approval. Genomic DNA was analysed for microsatellite instability in BAT-26. High-quality RNA was used for microarray analysis on the Affymetrix HG-U133A chip. Data was analysed on GeneSpring software version 6.0. Confirmatory real-time RT-PCR was performed on 28 MSI-H and 26 MSS cancers. A comparison of 29 MSI-H and 104 MSS cancers identified 2070 genes that were differentially expressed between the two groups [P < 0.005]. Significantly, many key immunomodulatory genes were up-regulated in MSI-H cancers. These included antigen chaperone molecules (HSP-70, HSP-110, Calreticulin, gp96), pro-inflammatory cytokines (Interleukin (IL)-18, IL-15, IL-8, IL-24, IL-7) and cytotoxic mediators (Granulysin, Granzyme A). Quantitative RT-PCR confirmed up-regulation of HSP-70 [P = 0.016], HSP-110 [P = 0.002], IL-18 [P = 0.004], IL-8 [0.002] and Granulysin [P < 0.0001].
Conclusions: The upregulation of a large number of genes implicated in immune response supports the theory that MSI-H cancers are immunogenic. The novel observation of Heat Shock Protein up-regulation in MSI-H cancer is highly significant in light of the recognised roles of these proteins in innate and antigen-specific immunogenicity. Increased mRNA levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and cytotoxic mediators also indicate an activated anti-tumour immune response.